Are zoos ethical?

Are zoos really the centres of conservation and education they make themselves out to be, and what are the consequences for the wild animals they hold? Born Free’s Policy Support Officer Frankie Osuch delves deeper into the ethics of zoos.

There are approximately 300 licensed zoos in the UK, which are collectively responsible for the welfare of tens of thousands of captive animals. Despite the scale of the zoo industry, the moral justifications for this practice remain questionable. Many animals suffer in captivity as zoos can never recreate the complex environment they are adapted to live in. Deprived of their natural habitat and social structures, zoo animals can often suffer physical and psychological ailments not experienced by their wild counterparts.

Policy Support Officer Frankie Osuch

For example, our recent report Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame highlighted how elephants in zoos typically suffer shortened life expectancies, poor reproductive success, high calf mortality and a variety of physical and behavioural abnormalities as a result of their captivity. In 2020, we released our report entitled Confined Giants, which focused on the physical and mental problems experienced by captive giraffes and emphasises how European zoos do not play any clear role in the overall conservation of the species.

In the face of increasing public concern about the welfare of captive animals, zoos often try to justify their existence by claiming that keeping wild animals in captivity contributes to conservation and education. However, as highlighted in our report Conservation or Collection, the majority of species kept by zoos are not considered to be threatened with extinction in the wild. Also, relatively few zoos are involved in reintroduction programmes, meaning the majority of animals are kept, and often bred, without any chance of them ever being returned to the wild. While some larger zoos may contribute funding to conservation programmes, our Financing Conservation or Funding Captivity? report found that even members of the Consortium of Charitable Zoos, which represents some of the largest and most well-known zoos in the UK, only contribute on average 4.2% of their revenue to in situ conservation.

“The world is in the midst of an extinction crisis, but zoos do not offer a viable solution. We must aspire to protect wild animals where they belong – in the wild.”

The world is in the midst of an extinction crisis, but zoos do not offer a viable solution. Some are even contributing to the problem by removing animals from the wild, with a recent example being two Emirati zoos that took a group of wild elephants from an extremely vulnerable population in Namibia to populate their exhibits.

Claimed educational benefits may be harder to evaluate, but simply providing the opportunity for people to see animals up close in artificial environments is not likely to change their behaviour to help protect animals in the wild once they have gone home.

In general, zoos prioritise providing entertainment rather than education and conservation. This commodification of wildlife is further demonstrated through the practice of so-called ‘zoothanasia’, where zoos routinely kill healthy individuals that are no longer useful or profitable and are considered ‘surplus stock’.

Considering the questionable management practices and the poor or absent conservation and educational benefits, even in zoos considered to provide the best conditions, confining a wild animal to a lifetime of captivity in a zoo is, in our view, clearly unethical.

We must aspire to protect wild animals where they belong – in the wild. 

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Image © Aaron Gekoski